8 July 2009
The Department of Health, which in March said it was considering lowering the cervical screening age limit in England from 25 years to 20 years, has announced that there will be no change to the age at which young women are screened for cervical cancer. This means in England only women between the ages of 25 and 64 remain eligible for free NHS cervical screening every three to five years.
Young women in England used to be invited to have cervical screening from the age of 20, but in 2003 the Government increased the lower age limit for cervical screening, more commonly known as a “smear”, from 20 years to 25 years.
The recent government commissioned review, carried out by the independent Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening (ACCS), unanimously concluded that screening women under 25 years would do “more harm than good” by producing ‘false positives’ (because changes to the cells in the cervix are more common in younger women) and potentially increasing the risk of premature births by unnecessary and harmful investigations damaging the neck of the womb.
The Department of Health said, although the lower age limit for cervical screening will not be reduced, new guidance will be issued to all GPs and nurses to increase awareness and management of cervical cancer in young women.
The Department of Health’s announcement means there remain two different screening programmes run in Britain since 2003; women living in England will continue to receive their first invitation for a routine smear once they are 25 years old, whereas women living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still invited at 20 years old.
In response to the government’s decision, Liz Davies from Marie Stopes International, a leading sexual health charity, said it is “nonsensical that English women have to wait for a preventative cancer screening service that is provided five years earlier to women living in the rest of the UK”.
The British Medical Association also has denounced the Department of Health’s decision to refuse cervical cancer screening to women aged under 25 in England. A week after the announcement, Doctors voted three to one that women in England should be screened for cervical cancer from the age of 20.
Ann Keen, the Health minister, said she supported the conclusion reached by ACCS and that the government’s policy on the screening of cervical cancer is in the best interests of young women.
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